I have referenced my favorite description of artists here before, but it bears repeating:
Artists are continually torn between the urgent need to communicate, and the still more urgent need not to be found.
—D. W. Winnicott
As intimately as I know that paradoxical space that Winnicott describes, I have also come to see that it possesses other features of polar extremes. State of mind, for example, is a fragile entity no matter what you do with your day. But it looms as a particularly large issue for anyone whose work is the pulling of fine angel hair threads from thin air—threads that weave themselves into poems, music, art.
Like someone with adult onset food allergies, I am much more cautious about what I read and see. While the line is a fine one between being an isolate and a person who practices thoughtful selective neglect, I am getting better at monitoring when I have been over exposed to the negative and the dark view. Each of us has our own water level. Perhaps mine is changing.
Here’s some tests of your tolerance: This excerpt is from a recent review of two books, Anna Porter‘s The Ghosts of Europe: Central Europe’s Past and Uncertain Future, and F. S. Michael‘s Monoculture: How One Story Is Changing Everything, written by Jessa Crispin on The Smart Set, a thoughtful site from Drexel University:
Twenty years after the Velvet Revolution, Havel gave a public speech in which he assessed the current state of the free Czech Republic. “On the one hand everything is getting better — a new generation of mobile phones is being released every week,” he said. “But in order to make use of them, you need to follow new instructions. So you end up reading instruction manuals instead of books and in your free time you watch TV where handsome tanned guys scream from advertisements about how happy they are to have new swimming trunks… The new consumer society is accomplished by a growing number of people who do not create anything of value.”
The artistic and literary scene that flourished paradoxically under censorship and repression has died off. The public intellectual is, for the most part, no longer invited to the most important parties. Anna Porter writes, “Now that everyone can publish what they want, what is the role of the intellectuals?” and she can’t find an answer. It’s no longer the police state that’s attacking the intelligentsia — it’s disinterest and boredom. It’s distraction. It’s a trade off. And it’s one that we should be able to acknowledge and be allowed to mourn. When the historian Timothy Garton Ash visited Poland in the 1980s, he admitted to an envy for the environment there. “Here is a place where people care, passionately, about ideas.” The people of Central Europe traded in ideas for groceries and for not being beaten to death by the police. No one could possibly blame them, but at the same time, Havel and the other leaders had no sense of the true cost of democracy.
So Central Europe gave up one monoculture and installed another. It also happens to be the presiding monoculture of nearly the entire world: the economic story. But perhaps it’s easier to see the monoculture through the filter of Central Europe because the transition was so quick and total there. The economic story of the United States came on creeping, subsuming our culture so pervasively and gradually that it’s almost difficult to believe things here ever worked any another way. But East Berlin became West Berlin with the crumbling of one thin wall.
From another article on The Smart Set—A Question of Timing: The resonance of destruction past, manufactured, and yet-to-come, by Morgan Meis:
Everybody is talking about ruins these days. That could be a bad sign. Detroit, in particular, seems to have captured the fancy of the ruin enthusiast. Detroit has experienced a 25 percent reduction in population over the last 10 years or so. Whole areas of the city have been abandoned. You can see entire neighborhoods in ruin, skyscrapers in ruin, a vastly depopulated downtown area. Camilo José Vergara, a photographer specializing in urban decay, once suggested in the mid-1990s that large sections of downtown Detroit be turned into a “skyscraper ruins park.” It would be a testimonial to a lost age, preserved in stone and metal and glass. Today, people sometimes travel to places like Detroit and other Rust Belt locations for the sole reason of gazing upon the ruins.
Our existence is caught between competing vectors, strong forces driving life in completely different directions. Who could have calculated the cost of democracy on the cultural vibrancy of Eastern Europe? And how do we come to terms with the fact that ruins ARE fascinating, that a voyeuristic prurience in us does make “ruin porn” an apt term. Anselm Kiefer, one of my most admired artists, has built a staggering artistic oeuvre grounded in a foundational concept of ruination, writ large and small.
The life force you need in the “rag and bone shop” studio needs protection. It needs shoring up. A diet that can balance the dark with a healthy serving of the light. I’ve gotten better with time at figuring out which of my friends are the leaven in my loaf and which ones require a more limited exposure; which writers and musicians feed the maker in me; what practices—even the simple ones like a moment of quiet before starting to work—bring me into balance. And after all these years, I still feel like I am a beginner at being a guard at the gate. But getting proficient at gate guarding is more important to me now than ever before.